How do you read the news critically?

Epistemic status: My own theories that developed over years based on reading and giving mainstream media interviews about Quantified Self.

When the phrase ‘fake news’ became popular in 2016, many people called for critical news consumption. The American left used the term to talk about new venues that were very successful in producing stories that went viral on Facebook. Later Donald Trump co-opted the phrase to talk about the mainstream media.

The quality of the information of both kinds of sources is radically different. At the same time the mainstream media isn’t a paragon of truth either. Given that there’s little good writing about how to interpret news articles, I will try to describe a few key features of how reading the news media can mislead.

There’s a common idea in the American discourse that you find informative articles by seeking for articles that are unbiased, have a neutral point of view and are objective. While the ideal has positive intent, following it leads to being less informed.

Why would you want to read an article from someone who doesn’t have a neutral point of view? The average journalist has huge time pressure when he writes an article. An article that’s based on the understanding of a topic that can be derived by researching the topic for a day isn’t very deep because the author doesn’t understand the topic very deeply. Traditionally, outlets such a Foreign Policy and The Economist, that take a point of view and are more informative than news media that pretends to be neutral. These articles are more thought through. The author has an informed opinion on a matter – a bias that has intelligent reasoning behind it.

While some forms of bias can be easily seen by reading an article, many can not. It’s easier to correct for bias when the author is open about his stance on the issue.

When Robert Moses took over the building of the Triborough Bridge there was a flaw in the previous plan. The sensible location for the Bridge would have been 100th Street as 85% of its predicted traffic was going to move through it. The plan for the Triborough Bridge called for it to be built at 125th Street which added 2,5 miles of additional travel for most users of the bridge. Robert Caro writes in The Power Broker in 1974, that William Randolph Hearst, who owned at the time two newspapers, wanted the bridge to be built on 125th Street, because he would financially benefit from it being built at that place as he owned deteriorating real estate that the government would buy from him as a result.

Instead of picking a fight with Hearst, Moses allowed the bridge to be built where Hearst wanted it to be built. The project succeeded and the bridge opened in 1936. It would have been nearly impossible for a reader who tries to find out whether a related article in Hearst’s newspapers is biased to find out about the conflict of interest, given that there wasn’t any public information about it. This not only affects the reporting on the story of this particular newspaper but by doing what Hearst wanted in this instance, Moses could count on Hearst’s support for his other projects as well.

In contrast to a newspaper an organization like Amnesty International is far from having a neutral point of view. They invest a lot of effort into doing the research to get their facts right. This kind of research takes resources and the people that engage with it do it because they actually care about it and they have a point of view that it’s important. Even when you don’t necessarily follow their conclusions they are often good sources for information.

The alternative to thinking of articles as either fulfilling the ideal of the detached and having neutral point of view is to practice an expanded version of theory of mind. Theory of mind is about thinking about what goes on the mind of someone else. Why “expanded” theory of mind? It’s about not only taking into account the mind of the author of the article. In most cases, the author of the article isn’t the only person involved in writing the article.

In most newspapers both in print and online the headline isn’t written by the person who wrote the article but by a headline writer. The headline is written by a person who didn’t do any research on the topic and whose job it is to advertise the article in the newspaper to get people to read it. If there are claims made in the headline that the article doesn’t make, those claims should generally be disregarded. Headlines are designed to entice the reader but may not accurately represent the content.

The first article that was written about in the context of Quantified Self was syndicated to multiple websites and some of those had new image captions that painted me in a negative light that the journalist who wrote the main article didn’t write. When you read an article you should put special caution into what’s written in image captions as there’s a good chance they didn’t get written by a person who researched the main article.

While some websites publish articles without an editor being involved, in many cases an editor influences articles before publication. If a journalist makes a claim that creates legal liability for the newspaper when it’s wrong, the editor will require deep research from the journalist to prove that the claim is right. On the other hand, the editor won’t care about whether the journalist gets the age of a person inside the article right and as a result it’s a lot more likely that an article will misstate the age of an interviewed person.

Whenever you ask yourself whether a claim that’s inside an article is well researched it’s useful to think about how much the journalist and his newspaper has to lose when the claim will get shown to be wrong.

While journalists do provide supporting evidence for their claims to the reader, they frequently can’t share all the evidence they have. During interviews there are three basic modes:

#1: Information can be attributed to the person who’s interviewed

#2: Information can be cited by anonymizing the person “A trusted source within the administration said...”

#3: Information is given on deep background and can’t be used unless the journalist finds another source for the information.

A good investigative journalist usually has a lot of information that comes under #3 because people are more willing to share information with him under #3.

John Carreyrou brought through his investigative reporting light on the problems at Theranos. One of the lead scientists at Theranos committed suicide and Carreyrou spoke to his wife. Given that the wife was under a non-disclosure-agreement she shared her knowledge with him under #3. Carreyrou had a lot more information about what Theranos did wrong than he could publicly disclose and the wife likely wasn’t the only source of information that comes under #3.

Politicians who spent a lot of time with journalists often like it when they have someone to listen to talk about their troubles and when they don’t want the information to appear in print it’s often easy to simply declare the information to be shared under #3. There also cultural expectations that certain information should be automatically regarded as being shared under #3 in the mainstream media. When Michael Hastings wrote his article in the Rolling Stones that lead to the sacking of US general’s Stanley McChrystal there was the sense that he violated the norms of the mainstream media who would have seen the information that got him fired has having been under #3 because of their cultural norms.

Roughly, a decade ago Buzzfeed was founded as a new model of publishing. It’s founder Jonah Peretti had the insight that readers not only come to a news website because they want to get the daily news but that the new social media technologies allowed readers to share articles with each other. Buzzfeed provided his writers metrics to tell them about how viral their stories were and started to incentivise writers by the number of clicks their articles received and how often their articles get shared. People share articles when they get angry or feel happy about an article. They don’t share an article when it makes them sad. As a result the most photo series about the ruins of Detroit don’t have people in them while the real Detroit is full of homeless people. If the reality is sad, a journalist will try to write a story that will make you angry rather than sad.

Buzzfeed produced a model that allowed them to get a large audience but they missed respect. Buzzfeed decided that they want to be taken seriously and hired Michael Hastings and other investigative reporters. Even when the investigative reporters produce less clicks per hour of work, the stories they write are worth it because they give the website more prestige. That prestige in turn makes it easier for Buzzfeed to convince advertisers to pay for sponsored stories on Buzzfeed. It’s fortunate that prestige often goes hand in hand with providing true information but in cases where it doesn’t, the reader should be very careful about claims that are made.

Investigative reporting can sometimes get dangerous. Michael Hastings died at the age of 33 when he was according to his widow writing a profile of CIA Director John O. Brennan in questionable circumstances. It’s not clear whether his death was an accident but whether or not it actually was an accident the incident likely makes journalists who go for similar stories nervous.

Trump’s ties to the mafia are an interesting story that doesn’t get much reporting. While there was enough evidence of such ties, Australian authorities blocked Trump from building a casino and the US media is generally very interested in writing negative stories about Trump, you find few stories about Trump’s mafia connections. The problem with writing those stories is that it’s not only an attack on Trump but also an attack on the members of the mafia who don’t like to be attacked. Wikileaks hosts some interesting articles for anyone who wants to better understand how the related mechanism allegedly works. For obvious reasons, I won’t recount specific facts in my article and thinking through my likely reasons is left as an exercise for the reader.

The problem of missing information that a reporter can’t access means that Forbes lists of the richest people is unlikely to actually list all the richest people, many of whom have a lot of their wealth in tax havens in complex structures where the ownership can’t be assessed by a journalist.

Even when the information is available, the real world is very complex. A journalist, who wants to reach a broad audience for his writing, has to keep his story as simple as possible. It’s the mark of a great journalist to be able to take a complex issue and explain it in a way that’s simple. Journalism doesn’t work by the academic standards where claims get qualified to avoid saying anything that isn’t strictly true.

During my Quantified Self time, I gave a TV interview together with a friend who used the EmWave2 to meditate by doing heart rate variance biofeedback. We had the problem that most of the audience likely didn’t know what heart rate variance was and there was no time to explain it because it wasn’t central to the story of Quantified Self. After back and forth with the journalist to get the story to be more simple he ended up saying that he measures his heart rate. For the average member of the audience that was likely as informative as the more accurate claim that the EmWave2 measures heart rate variance but more sophisticated members of the audience would have had a problem if they would have interpreted the claim as face value.

Thinking about complexity is important when thinking about public relations. When we discussed which questions to have in the LW census we thought about adding questions about illegal drugs but decided against it. Even a number that 14% of the LessWrong population used illegal drugs would constitute an interesting factoid for a journalist who writes a story about LessWrong even when the number equals the number of the general population. On the other hand, the fact that I argue against adding a question about measuring illegal drug use via our census is on it’s own no factoid that’s interesting to write about in a newspaper article.

Savvy authors who write for a specialized audience about an important subject matter that’s unlikely to be well received by a mainstream audience are well advised to raise the complexity of their writing in a way that they can’t easily be quoted without the journalist explaining their position in more detail. While this doesn’t make it impossible to write a story, it makes it harder.

Seymour Hersh who won the 1970 Pulitzer Prize for International Reporting exposing the My Lai Massacre and its cover-up during the Vietnam War and who broke the story about Abu Ghraib wrote The Killing of Osama bin Laden. Hersh describes how the official story of how the US killed Osama bin-Laden is a huge fabrication. At the time when the US military in the official story killed bin-Laden, he was a prisoner of the Pakastani’s. The Pakastani’s killed him before the American helicopters arrived and flew his dead body away. Despite his track record as an investigative journalist Hersh couldn’t get the article published in a normal mainstream venue and had to go to the London Review of Books to get it out.

When we get back to stories for a mainstream audience, a story for a mainstream audience has to talk about narratives towards which the audience can relate. The question of how we deal with technology is culturally interesting and as a result journalists were very interested in writing articles about Quantified Self. It deals with our human relationship to the technology in our lives.

When Egypt had its revolution our news media liked to talk about Twitter and Facebook because the idea that Twitter and Facebook change our lives is a narrative that Western readers can relate to. Western readers are less interested in the fact that the military who runs parts of Egypts economy had an interested in the revolution succeeding.

They didn’t like that Hosni Mubarak and his son Gamal Mubarak where opening up Egypt for international business. While Hosni Mubarak served in the military, his son whom he groomed to be the next president had his first job at bank of America. Under him the military was going to lose power over the Egyptian economy to foreigners.

While the military could have decided to stop the revolution they didn’t need to because their power was never threatened. I wasn’t surprised when the military later reinstated the dictatorship because they never gave up any power. From the narratives of Western media that event was unforeseeable. This narrative where the people have the power to overthrow a government regardless of what the military wants to happen in turn leads to bad public policy.

According to Michael Cieply who worked at the New York Times, in its editorial process journalists are occasionally asked by editors to map a narrative a year in advance and then find the facts to write the articles according to the pre-maped narrative.

Hans Rosling asked the US public, the US media, EU public and EU media questions about how well global development is going. When he asked “What percentage of the world’s one-year old Children are vaccinated against measles? 20%, 50% or 80%?” only 6% of EU media members answered the correct answer of 80% with 8% of the EU public getting it right. They did much worse than a chimpanzee who picks the answer randomly. He got similar results for other questions about global development. While the newspaper stories are mostly fact-based, the narrative that they tell about the global world makes people who read them less informed about what goes on in the world.

When you read the news, don’t see the article you are reading in isolation. Try to see it in the context that produced it to draw understanding of our world from it.